President Nowaczyk Says “Student Demand” Led to Decision to Hold Classes Partially In-Person; Students Say Otherwise
Leading up to the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester, Frostburg State University President Ronald H. Nowaczyk has hosted a number of virtual meetings with students, faculty, and staff. These opportunities have allowed campus community members to ask questions and have them answered by Nowaczyk, Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Artie Lee Travis, and Interim Provost Dr. Michael Mathias.
During these Town Hall-style virtual events, Nowaczyk has referred to so-called “student demand” as his justification for deciding to conduct classes in a hybrid format where students are required to attend in-person classes for some portion of the semester. During the SGA Town Hall held on Tuesday, August 4, he said, “there is a strong demand among students to return.” He echoed this assertion during the Thursday, August 6 meeting with faculty and staff. (While many of these meetings have been recorded and uploaded to FSU’s website, one held with student-athletes on August 5 has not been uploaded for public viewing.)
However, faculty and staff members have expressed doubt that students truly want to return to campus amid the coronavirus pandemic. An anonymous staff member who works in Residence Life says there is “no real data to support the President’s claim that the students wanted to return to campus as he keeps boasting.” She says that the decision was based on “a few conversations and statements from students across the system.”
Faculty members have posted on social media that they have fielded numerous emails from students who are concerned about returning. One Sociology professor reported that five students enrolled in her courses have considered dropping out or have asked for an exclusively online accommodation. She wrote online, “students are concerned about returning to campus. They’re reaching out to me for advice, but I’m just as concerned as they are.”
This issue was brought to the President’s attention during the August 6 meeting, as well, and faculty members have been instructed to forward those emails to an account created to centralize and address these concerns on an individual basis.
To Nowaczyk’s credit, he has communicated on numerous occasions that students who wish to avoid campus and take online courses will be accommodated. This may take many forms, but he has described situations where students will be offered academic advising so they can create a schedule taking only online courses. In the event that an online course is not available through FSU, Nowaczyk says students have the option to take an equivalent course with the University of Maryland Global Campus, an entirely online institution that is a part of the University System of Maryland.
However, for some transfer students who attended community college before enrolling at Frostburg and have already transferred the maximum number of credits allowed per the Undergraduate Catalog, this is not an option. Moreover, some soon-to-be graduating Seniors say that they are being “forced to return” or else they won’t graduate on time.
Second-semester Senior Jeffrey Martin, a Social Science and Psychology double major, says that scenario describes him.
“My advisor and I put my schedule together and it was everything I needed to graduate. I tried a million hypothetical schedules online but couldn’t find anything that worked unless I take one class during the winter session but I don’t have the money for that. I also had to scramble to fill my schedule after a course was cancelled due to low enrollment,” he says. Thus, Martin will have three hybrid courses this semester. “I don’t want to screw up my attendance or grades, but it’s also hard to go to class when both my parents are over 60 and are lifelong smokers,” he says, adding, “I assumed the university would switch to online courses since our country’s numbers haven’t really gotten better since last semester.”
In an evaluation of PAWS, the Oracle technology product that FSU uses to store student data that serves as a scheduling assistant, there will be 1,455 courses offered this semester. Of that total, 402 will be offered exclusively online, which represents 27.6% of all courses offered. The other 1,053 courses will be offered in a hybrid format with a required in-person component.
Interim Provost Mathias says faculty members will have a “fair amount of flexibility” as it relates to the number of class periods they can require students to attend face-to-face for those courses delivered in the hybrid format.
Mathias has also indicated that FSU expects faculty members to adhere to posted classroom maximum occupancy levels. For example, Dunkle Hall 325 is normally scheduled for a class size of 22 students. This semester, the maximum allowed in the room will be 10, plus the instructor, to adhere to CDC guidelines. Therefore, the Office of Academic Affairs expects faculty members to split the course into groups such that in-person meetings will be attended by smaller cohorts of students.
However, some instructors have yet to announce which students should report and when.
Lauryn Anderson, a Senior, says she got an email from her professor that “makes it seem that all students in the class will have to report the first day despite being told only half of the class would in the classroom at a time by the professor.” This worries Anderson because she is trying to limit her exposure to other students in order to prevent Covid-19 infection.
Nonetheless, President Nowaczyk continues to argue that students were the driving force behind the decision to hold 72.4% of classes in hybrid form.
Nowaczyk admits that “there was no formal survey taken of students” about returning, but cites other indicators. By email, he wrote, “The fact that our residence halls are full for fall semester, I believe, speaks to the fact that a very significant portion of our student body wants to be on campus this fall.”
However, Nowaczyk’s argument does not take into consideration that all first and second year students are required by university policy to live on-campus which certainly drives the number of residents up. Moreover, Nowaczyk does not appear to acknowledge that student demand for housing does not necessarily indicate student demand for in-person classes. Indeed, many students have shared on social media that they would like to live on campus, but take courses exclusively online.
“I want to be on campus, but I do not want to have in-person classes,” says Sidonie Brown, a Senior. “I would much prefer to be online, but on campus to have access to resources and instructors,” she says.
Moreover, online instruction isn’t for every student. Some say that without an in-person component, their grades will suffer.
“I’m not an online learner and to be honest, I went from being a B student to a C student because of online classes being held last semester,” says a Junior who asked to remain anonymous. “Other than being someone who needs to learn in person, I also don’t have the best environment to learn in. Being at school gives me the feeling that I’m really learning instead of just teaching myself,” she says. However, the student admits that her thoughts on the topic were never solicited by the university. “I personally never saw a survey or anything,” she says.
Nowaczyk says that the university is “working to accommodate students who want to be on campus as well as those who would prefer to study remotely.” But some students say they don’t have a choice.
Graduate student Brittney Mazie says that two of her three classes are “completely in-person” and required for her to continue in her Masters in Counseling Psychology program. She and her partner, Kaelan Keller, who is also an FSU student, are worried about exposure to Covid-19, but Mazie says she doesn’t have any other option but to continue on.
Keller expresses another concern, too. He is in his final year of graduate school and will be a TA for multiple professional development classes, but he is also required to do an internship. He’s been placed in the Joseph S. Massie Unit, an addiction rehabilitation center in Cumberland and he worries that he will bring the virus from the university to his clients who reside in the unit.
Nowaczyk’s assertion that students have communicated a desire to be on campus was met with outrage on social media.
One student wrote, “This is the part that aggravating to me… WHO is saying they want to be back? Everything I’ve seen on social media has said otherwise… of course there may be a small minority who need to be here (no home, or rough living locations, etc) however I haven’t heard much about that.”
After hearing Nowaczyk speak during the SGA Town Hall, a student wrote, “I was like, did I miss something? Who is out here advocating for this? I’ve seen and heard nothing.”
Others asked for documentation or evidence of the process where student input on the decision to hold in-person classes was requested. One student wrote, “this is way too important a time to let people in power make unchecked statements.”
At this point, the decision to hold some in-person courses seems final. Classes begin in six days and move-in to the residents halls will begin in two days. Some student-athletes and Resident Hall student employees have already returned.